What seems obscene in one era becomes commonplace in another. In 1952, Lucy couldn’t say the word “pregnant” during an entire season of I Love Lucy in which she was “with child.” Euphemisms and deflection eventually fall. Still, the demystification of taboo takes time, and even today, 40 years after George Carlin first enumerated the […]
What seems obscene in one era becomes commonplace in another. In 1952, Lucy couldn’t say the word “pregnant” during an entire season of I Love Lucy in which she was “with child.” Euphemisms and deflection eventually fall. Still, the demystification of taboo takes time, and even today, 40 years after George Carlin first enumerated the “seven dirty words”, most are still censored in the media.
In politics, censorship is rife, although most of it is self-imposed by politicians. Not talking about things, and avoiding certain words, is as important to candidates and leaders as what they do talk about.
So, for a long time, “inequality” has been a dirty word in American politics. Looking at, and talking about, the growing gap between rich and poor was considered a political loser. In fact, the conservative right found advantage in labeling any mention of the outrageous economic gap in the US as “class warfare,” even while pursuing policies that have a distinct class-bias.
But, the “I” word is out in the open now. The “Occupy Wall Street” protests and the 99% movement have forced the issue into the media and public consciousness. President Obama embraced it in a prominent speech in Kansas last December. And Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican leader on budget and economic issues addressed it directly as well in “A Deeper Look at Income Inequality.” Last week at CAP, the head of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, Alan Krueger said:
I used to have an aversion to using the term inequality. The Wall Street Journal ran an article in the mid-1990s that noted that I prefer to use the term “dispersion”. But the rise in income dispersion – along so many dimensions – has gotten to be so high, that I now think that inequality is a more appropriate term.
So, I guess it’s safe to talk about inequality in American politics now.
But, what about the “R” word? Redistribution.
Until recently, left, right, and center have been loath to use the word, even though most policies—certainly tax and economic policy—have some kind of “distributive impact” benefiting those with income: higher incomes, or lower incomes, or both at the same time.
It’s more polite to talk about “opportunity”, or economic mobility, or entitlement reform. We talk about marginal tax rates, jobs, and unemployment. But, we rarely consider the social and economic programs with the explicit notion of transfers from one economic class (based on income or wealth) to another.
If inequality is a problem, then the solutions have to reduce it. And, while it’s technically possible to reduce inequality without redistribution, it’s not easy, likely, or quick. So, let’s try to get more comfortable with this word. If you still find it obscene, stop reading, because I’m going to type it out again: redistribution.